There is little doubt that the success of “To Leave Something Behind” featured in the Ben Affleck hit The Accountant had an impact on Sean Rowe’s latest effort, New Lore. The album, to be released April 7 on Anti, plays heavily on Rowe’s ability to transport the listener to extremely personal emotional states, to capture the intricacies of human relationships and the moments that make them and the fears and stressors that end them. Rowe has an ability to so precisely capture human moments that his songs at times do rival the ability of cinema to communicate the human condition.
Album opener “Gas Station Rose” creeps up, Rowe softly plucking his guitar, his baritone enveloping the track. “But we can’t have a garden while we’re still on the road/there’s only room on the dash for a gas station rose/you know when I shut up I got something to say/I was looking at you/you we’re looking away.” Piano chords crash down as Rowe reaches the chorus. The song is cinematic and emotionally crippling–a snapshot of a relationship framed by a road trip. The song literally brings tears to my eyes.
It’s a dangerous way to start an album, having emotionally kneecapped your listeners. But Rowe’s songwriting prowess and his choice of instrumentation on the following track, “The Salmon,” is so dramatically uplifting and enrapturing–a piano riff, a woman chanting “doot a doot a da-da” with Rowe recalling a childhood romp in the wilderness, that you are soon floating in the clouds far away from the emotional strife of the previous track. He hits a falsetto and it feels like you’re deep in a warm summer dream.
On “Promise of You” Rowe is backed by a gospel choir; the song feels simultaneously sanctified and bluesy, a feat that in many respects should be impossible. The production on Lore is crisp, bright and punctuated by a string section that operates as though conducted by legendary producer Tony Visconti–more T.Rex’s Slider than any Bowie release.
“You Keep Coming Alive” is a pulsing country blues stomper that almost feels out of place on the album, except that Rowe dominates the song with his voice, almost consuming the track whole. Rowe’s struggle to reconcile his career as a traveling musician with his deep desire to be at home with his wife and children defines the album; perhaps that is what makes the whole affair so dramatically impactful for me. But on album closer, “The Very First Snow,” Rowe sings of the loss of a loved one. It’s a simple, universal theme–but knowing Rowe comes from Troy, New York, it’s almost impossible to prevent a very detailed image of life and death in upstate New York from coming alive in your head as Rowe sings of mourning: “You left with all the Christmas lights on/ as light as the very first snow.” And with that Rowe finishes Lore as he began it–by taking a little piece of your soul.